Since Susan Fowler blogged about her experience at Uber in February, the debate about sexism in tech has dominated IT and business news. Note that this debate is not new, and Fowler’s story isn’t all that different from many other stories we’ve heard before. It’s just that for once, finally, people were paying attention, and There Were Consequences. Then matters escalated in June with a string of revelations about sexism—not just discrimination, but full on sexual harassment.
Then came the apologies. Let me tell you about the apologies. The average response from a manager or venture capitalist accused of sexism went something like this:
I apologized unreservedly for my treatment of X. I realize now that my innocent jokes may have been misinterpreted. I’m actually a pretty nice guy, and X’s refusal to sleep with me had no impact whatsoever on my decision not to invest in her startup.
Then came the White Knights:
As a VC, I’m appalled to hear about my colleagues’ behavior towards women. I would like to reassure you all that Not All Men are like that. I myself am actually a pretty nice guy and completely innocent in all this.
Guys, it’s time to face the music. We have all been That Guy. We have all made sexist jokes, or laughed when others made them, or stood by silently while our male bosses, coworkers and colleagues ignored or patronized or belittled or humiliated women. We have all benefited from a system that eliminates close to 50% of our competition before the race has even started.
We are all complicit. We are all guilty.
So what do we do? Where do we go next?
First, take a deep breath, do a little soul-searching, and re-read that paragraph until any impulse, however minor, to say to yourself “OK, but not me” is gone. Yes, you too.
Next, if you’ve ever acted inappropriately towards a female coworker or friend or acquaintance, or stood by silently while others did, consider apologizing.
Third, vow to never do so again, and work hard to keep that vow. Respect the women around you as much as you respect the men. If someone around you acts or speaks inappropriately, speak up, even if there are no women present. Be proactive: make sure that women are given equal opportunity to join those career-building projects, and are included in those backstage chats where decisions are made. If you are hiring, seek out female candidates, keeping in mind that women have a tendency to underestimate their abilities and experience just as men have a tendency to overestimate them. If you are teaching, encourage and mentor female students. Reach out to them if they seem discouraged. Don’t wait until they drop out.
Open your eyes. Open your ears. Listen to the women around you. Believe them. Respect them. Be someone they can vent to and someone they can count on for support when push comes to shove.
You will slip up. When you do, apologize and vow to do better.
As a man, you are, and always have been, part of the problem. Accept it, and start being part of the solution.